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When I said earlier that there’s a lot of “it’s that time of year again” in my life during the autumn months, I should have included in the list the annual pie-making ritual that is His Lordship’s birthday.

I usually spend the weeks before his birthday with my ears open for any new options, and this year I happened upon the episode of America’s Test Kitchen on apple desserts. The Skillet Apple Pie not only looked perfect but also provided a ready-made gift idea: a 12-inch oven-safe skillet, which we did not have. (I know! Kitchen equipment I don’t own! Inconceivable!)

The idea here is that the filling is pre-cooked on the stove, then covered with just a top layer of dough and baked for a much shorter-than-usual length of time. The sheer brilliance of this is that it sidesteps the double-hassle of rolling, fitting and crimping, and avoids the largely inevitable risk of a soggy and/or tough bottom crust. You also don’t have to worry about finding an oven temperature that will soften the fruit, set the liquids, bake the dough, and avoid burning or overbaking any of the components. Since the filling is already mostly cooked, you’re free to flash-bake the crust at a temperature so high that the layers of dough “EEK!” away from each other and create beautifully crispy strata.

I did have to make some important changes to the procedures to accommodate the special needs of non-hydrogenated shortening, but even so, this was as effortless as pie could ever possibly be. The outcome was, if I may say so, even better than the birthday pie I deemed perfect a couple of years ago. This one may not be quite as refined as that standard double-crust apple pie, but it has its own kind of beauty, and by every measure it was a smashing success. The apple filling was sweet and juicy, neither gummy with too much thickener nor runny with too little. The pastry was utterly perfect: flaky, tender, shatteringly crisp. His Lordship positively adored it, both the day it was baked and the next morning for breakfast.

I love the ease, speed and deliciousness of this recipe so much that the birthday apple version was followed two weeks later by a pear and cranberry version (see the notes in the recipe below). Pretty much anything that would work as a cobbler or crisp will work here, so I’ve been dreaming up zillions of other filling possibilities ever since. I just found a new source for quinces and may have some left over for pie experimentation even after making jam, and I’m also eager to try cherry and peach when summer comes back around.  Don’t be surprised if pie makes repeat appearances in the next several seasons!

Best-Ever Birthday Apple Pie
(Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s Skillet Apple Pie)
Serves 6-8

For crust:
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated shortening
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3–4 tablespoons ice water

For filling:
2 1/2 pounds of various kinds of apples (about 6; see notes)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup apple cider
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

To bake:
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Cut the butter into 1/4 inch pieces and place into a small bowl with the shortening. Cover and refrigerate until the fats are very cold and firm, at least 20 minutes.

Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse several times to combine. Add the cold fat and pulse again 10 times, until the mixture resembles crumbs. Err on the side of leaving visible pea-sized bits of butter.

Dump the flour and butter mixture into a medium bowl. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of ice water over it and fold with a rubber spatula, pressing down gently. If the dough isn’t sticking together, add the extra tablespoon of water and fold again. Transfer the still-crumbly dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap and press out into a small disk. Wrap tightly and refrigerate at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight.

Fill a large bowl with cold water, and squeeze in some lemon juice. Peel and core the apples, and cut them into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place the peeled slices in the acidulated water to keep them from browning while you’re working on the rest.

Heat the butter in a 12-inch oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Lift the apples out of the water and toss into the pan. Stir infrequently until they’re starting to caramelize but not cooked all the way through, about 5-7 minutes, then turn off the heat. Whisk together the cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, cornstarch and cinnamon and pour over the apples, stirring gently to coat. Set aside to cool while you’re rolling out the pastry.

Adjust the oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat to 500F. While the oven is heating, roll out the dough to an 11-inch circle between layers of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Transfer the dough to a large cookie sheet, still encased in the plastic or parchment, and place in the freezer for the last few minutes of the preheating to re-chill the shortening.

When the oven is hot, peel the top layer of plastic or parchment off the pastry, flip the dough gently onto the apple filling in the skillet, and peel off the second layer. Fold under or trim off any edges that are hanging over the sides, brush the top with the egg white, and sprinkle evenly with the sugar. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough into six quadrants (once down the middle, and twice across). Bake until the crust is a deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

Let cool 15 minutes before serving warm with vanilla ice cream.

Notes:

ATK said to combine sweet and tart varieties, so I used equal amounts of Macoun, Empire, Jonagold and Cortland. Using apples with different characteristics gives you a more complex apple flavor and ensures that some apples will stay firm while others are almost applesauce-soft and add more body to the filling.

I use an apple corer/divider to segment the apples, which gives me eight wedges that can each be halved to get the perfect thickness.

Non-hydrogenated shortening can be found at health food stores and some bigger supermarkets. If you can’t find it and have to resort to regular shortening, you can skip the freezer step since it’s more forgiving of abuse.

If you don’t have an oven-safe skillet, the filling can be spooned into a shallow casserole or 9×13 Pyrex dish before being covered with the dough.

For the cranberry-pear variation, substitute pears for the apples and add one cup of cranberries plus 1/3 cup of sugar and the maple syrup once the pears have begun to soften up. Cook until the cranberries are just starting to pop, but be sure to turn off the heat while at least a few are still intact. Before you add the cider and thickener (I left out the cinnamon, but it’s your call), taste the filling and add a little bit more sugar if it’s still too tart. Proceed as usual with the recipe.

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